I want us to talk a little about what is the dancer’s role in the context of the music ho or she is dancing with. This is, of course, a quite long and complex subject… Patience! And you might want to take a look at this other post that I wrote a while back to have some extra context and information on the subject. Today we’ll be focusing on understanding how dancers relate with the music we dance and what is our role in doing so, we’ll take a look at some of the more familiar ideas and a few less treaded territories as well.
The basic approach
I keep hearing that a lot of dancers and teachers think of stepping on the strong beats of the music as the first (and oftentimes only) step towards achieving musicality,
This might sound like a good idea at first, and for a number of reasons. In a few words, stepping on the strong beat generates an immediate connection with the music that is easy to understand and identify. It’s also the approach most other popular dances take, so this reinforces the notion that this might be the most important thing to pay attention to.
But the problems are also numerous. Your first disappointment might be discovering the other group of people that reinforces the strong beat: the concert’s audience, when they begin clapping. Why might this be a bit of a problem, to find audiences as the other representatives of the “stepping strong beats” tribe? Because it exposes the truth, stepping on the beat (just like clapping to it) puts us in the most external of places, right alongside the music’s spectators. The connection with the sound might be very immediate, but that’s simply because it’s also as shallow as it can be. It is in fact the lowest connection you can have outside of having none.
Why is it then that every other dance works this way? Well, that’ a great question! But tango is not like other dances, or like other music for that matter… For starters because practically all the rest of popular music uses some sort of percussion to reinforce its rhythmic character.
Rest assured, there are some instruments in tango music that pick up that role, and there are orchestras that focus strongly on the rhythmic aspect, but there are also some others that don’t (and they’re not less tangueras because of that). We can safely say that with some orchestras keeping time is really important, but that’s not true all the time, or for all orchestras either.
The dancer as an instrument
A little less common is the idea of “dancing the melody”. What is the melody? It’s the set of sounds the we usually sing (or hum, or whistle) when we think of a specific piece of music. If this particular composition has lyrics then it’s quite possible that the melody (which carries the words) is being delivered by a singer, although instrumental music also has melody, even without singers or lyrics.
And what does dancing the melody means? It’s not really clear (for most dancers music is almost dark magic), but oftentimes it means doing less movements is the singer has longer notes, for example. Now I don’t want to get too technical here, but that’s not quite dancing the melody, but rather dancing the rhythm of the melody. It’s not wrong, but I thought I’d point out that they’re different. This same type of work, of copying the “movement” (actually, timing) of the melody is sometimes done with a specific instrument. That’s how you get into “dancing the violin”, “dancing the bandoneon”, and so on.
It should be pretty obvious that these options require listening more actively and the need a bigger commitment (or a less superficial one) to the music.
The problem here is that the melody is nos just a set of durations, but it is also one of the keys to the deep emotional content of the music. And representing only its durations means limiting ourselves to an interpretation of the musical message that’s partial and mechanic.
To depict or to interpret?
Smack in the center of this discussion there’s a conflict, basically that as dancers we operate on two languages at the same time. Painters paint paintings, writers write writing, but dancers dance music (and a dance also).
What we’ve discussed so far works along the same line, which is that dancers need to depict some aspect of the music. He or she has to try to give back what we’re hearing as closely as possible, using the temporal aspect as the basis for this process. In other words, the dancer will attempt to pour the regularities of the music’s pulse into regularities in the dance’s movements, or the irregularities of the melody’s timing into irregularities in the dance’s timing.
This is not the only possibility.
Another option is to think of the dancer’s function as not one of depiction but of interpretation. Which is to say, it’s not really about mirroring with high fidelity and transparency, but rather about understanding the message and rebuilding it in a different language, not without running it through his ideas, experiences, opinions and interests before.
This is because music is never really about notes that are closer or further apart from each other, but about sensations. Understanding music is not about being able to say that the oboe just played a couple of quarter notes and then a half note. Understanding music is about perceiving the desperation, or peace, or clarity, or melancholy, or joy, or the infinite array of colors for which we have no names, that manifest when you listen to a piece of music. It’s about focusing on the emotional content, more than on the temporal dimension. The good news is, if we create that dancing is also built around sensations, then we are in great shape for discovering and exploring some really deep lines connecting these disciplines.
Only by working from our sensations we can begin to really dance the melody, because this includes putting its emotional and even spiritual content into consideration, not just its rhythmic aspect. It also opens the doors for some new roles for dancers, like the role of the conductor, the person that knows and understands the music as a whole and decides what’s most important to highlight at any given moment. There are still some possibilities to discover, and that’s without even entering the really important question of whether it’s possible (and to what degree!) to relegate the musical functions of the dancer to focus more strongly on the dance/movement aspects or not (because we dance music and a dance, both at the same time).
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